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The Durrell Effect: How Animals Define Humanity

“Stick insects are just like people really- they like being on top of things, spend a lot of their time just hanging around, and have no need whatsoever for males (they can clone themselves at will).”

Jane Goodall speaks of her dog Rusty as her greatest teacher; Gerald Durrell wrote of Roger as his constant companion. I don’t have a dog, but I do have a menagerie of other animals that would put Durrell himself to shame: three pygmy bearded dragons, two spiny-leaf stick insects, and a touring exhibit of rescue animals (most recently a kingfisher) that come through WIRES. The reality is that the specific nature of the animal(s) in question matters little, but their presence is invaluable.

I call it the Durrell effect, after the most esteemed author, conservationist and eccentric who wrote the classic My Family and Other Animals, and effectively defined the purpose of the modern zoo. Put simple, by being immersed in animal companionship from an early age one is predestined to enter into such environmental pursuits. It seems obvious, intuitive even, but the significance lies in its absence which we are increasingly seeing in the modern world.

5 or 6 years ago, my family was camped in a remote national park in the North of Botswana. I was making the long trek back from the toilet block when for whatever reason I turned around. There, bare metres behind me, was a leopard crouched low to the ground. Spooked by the torch beam, it moved off, but kept on circling our little clearing for hours afterwards. My parents weren’t too keen on these creatures after that, but I’m still a leopard fan, and the hundreds of times I’ve told that story have certainly shaped who I am today.

Just this January I was lodged in a castle in Southern France, volunteering at a rescue and rehabilitation centre for birds of prey. During my final week there I had the privilege of taking part in a vulture release out in the Alps, and the sheer breath-taking magnificence that I felt stood on that cliff-edge seeing their graceful forms soaring all around will remain with me for the rest of my life. Writing these lines I still feel a shiver of excitement in memory of the experience.

Of course there’s a dark side to this all, and as the barriers (mental and physical) separating future generations from such wonders accumulate we must give thought to the effect this has. Introduced in 2005, the term ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’ is finding its way increasingly into the medical profession, with prescriptions of time spent outdoors resulting. Widespread publicity claims that mental illness is on the rise, and with a matching loss of natural spaces who could fail to see the connection?

Ochre my stick insect has been with me for about one year now, and is nearing the end of her life. But in that short space of time she has been an outstanding companion and teaching tool in my work. Most people would think of insects as lesser beings, emotionless automatons and the like, but as they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and as humans our perception of other lifeforms is necessarily skewed towards favouring our mammalian counterparts. Why define value from such an inconsistent measure, which serves only to boost our own over-inflated ego?

Humanity is by its very nature an intangible, elusive concept which escapes us in the defining. Rather it were a goal, a virtue, a responsibility to which our kind aspired and has not yet attained. In my view this ultimate point must acknowledge the interconnectedness of life, our place as humans in the complex web of life, and in doing so extend our circle of compassion on equal footing to all the multifarious creatures with which evolution has graced this Earth. Human Nature lies in our tremendous capacity for self-correction, recognizing and rectifying flaws both real and imagined over the centuries. And with 200 species going extinct every day, surely there has never been a greater test of our humanity than this present moment? To achieve the prosperous future we all aspire towards, Earth’s equilibrium must be restored through far-reaching societal shifts in perspective. Respect must preceed protect, but first must come acceptance.

So there is much work to be done in bringing the Durrell effect back into force at this critical time in our history, but the power for improvement it would yield is incalculable. I for one look forward to seeing what the future will bring.

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